Beckhoff introduced the EtherCAT real-time Ethernet system to the market in 2003 and disclosed its details within the EtherCAT Technology Group (ETG) the same year. The ultra-fast communication system has since grown considerably in the automation sector – the ETG issued its 3 000th EtherCAT vendor ID in July 2020.
Thomas Rettig, Senior Manager of Control Systems and Communication Architecture at Beckhoff says, “Now with 3 000 officially registered device manufacturers, EtherCAT has by far the broadest base of adoption in the industrial Ethernet market. According to the ETG, the user organisation with the second-highest number of registered manufacturers has only about half as many.
“As the inventor of EtherCAT, Beckhoff is pleased with this strong response, achieved despite the fact that the openness of EtherCAT generates more competition. It also means that Beckhoff customers benefit from the greatest diversity of devices on the market.”
Rettig attributes this success mainly to the technology itself because it delivers as many advantages to users as it does to the manufacturers of EtherCAT devices. “EtherCAT is the ideal technology for the diverse requirements of controllers as well as peripherals. On the controller side, users want to have as little specialised hardware as possible in order to put existing computers to use, and on the device side manufacturers want total hardware integration to save costs and reduce complexity.”
With EtherCAT, all complex and time-critical functions are integrated into the device controller chips, which are available from 12 different semiconductor producers. Simple devices require no microcontroller and therefore no software as some of the chips come with built-in I/O interfaces.
Since the EtherCAT controller is fully software-based, it needs only a conventional Ethernet port, which means it can be implemented on almost any PC or microcontroller board without requiring any additional hardware. In addition, there is the broad spectrum of available real-time operating systems: about 35 RTOSs are available for EtherCAT controllers.
The easy EtherCAT implementation provided by the ETG's ‘ecosystem’, with support from Beckhoff, is the second major factor in the system’s success. It ranges from extensive implementation guidelines to the Developer Forum on the organisation’s website with almost 7 000 posts about the development support provided by ETG employees. The ‘Slave Stack Code’ and related software tools, which Beckhoff supplies to all ETG members at no charge, has already been downloaded over 11 000 times. And the Conformance Test Tool, which ensures compatibility with the standard and is a practical development tool, is another important building block in the EtherCAT ecosystem.